Comprising a number of single-disc releases from the early days of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on DVD, Shout! Factory’s new Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection returns to print three of the most important episodes of the Joel Hodgson era, two lesser known entries and the final Shorts compilation for those who discovered the series in recent years or those who never had the chance to get the DVDs before. Is it a worthwhile purchase? Let’s take a look.
The episodes in question include 106: The Crawling Hand, 209: The Hellcats, 321: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, 506: Eegah, and 507: I Accuse My Parents. The latter three are absolute gems and represent some of the best movie riffing ever executed. Eegah in particular gave fans that most MST3K of catchphrases, “Watch out of snakes!” and the strange magic of Arch Hall Sr. and Arch Hall Jr. I Accuse My Parents might be the best episode based around a 1940s moral panic film — though I have an affinity for season five’s Invasion U.S.A. — with Joel and the Bots blaming an essay the lead character wrote for all of his subsequent problems. The episode also features one of the best sketches the team ever devised. It’s a staggering testament to Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon as puppeteers (and the talents of their support staff). It speaks to the sweet innocence of the show while still managing to deliver a great punchline.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians might be the Ur-MST3K. It’s in color, but the tones are simultaneously muted yet garish. It’s plot — in which the King of Mars kidnaps Santa Claus to bring joy to Martian children — has the quality of a fever dream with its men in polar bear costumes, cardboard robots stealing kids, and, of course, Dropo: the laziest man on Mars. Joel and the Bots make a meal out of the craziness while obsessing over Patrick Swayze. In fact, this episode gave fans that most cherished of Christmas carols, “Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas.”
The two earlier episodes are solid, just not of the caliber of the later material. The Crawling Hand‘s tenuous grasp on lightning means a number of scenes are just hard to watch. Also, Joel and the Bots (with J. Elvis Weinstein as Tom Servo) are still learning how to riff, so the whole things feels slower. On the plus side, the movie features MST3K’s first Alan Hale Jr. appearance and the Shatner sketch is pretty great.
And Hellcats? It’s one of two biker movies MST3K did during its first run (Sidehackers is the other) and it just doesn’t do anything to make it distinguishable. Even the sketches are flashbacks to previous sketches, including one from The Crawling Hand.
The final disc in the set, Shorts Vol. 3 might seem redundant as all of the shorts — moral hygiene and promotional films riffed by the MST3K crew — are now available with their original episodes. But at the same time, the compilation, which includes classics like Design for Dreaming and Is This Love?, remains a wonderful way to get a quick shot of MST3K without devoting the time to an entire episode. It is also a good way to introduce someone to MST3K or movie riffing as making fun of an industrial short about bread distribution immediately conveys what the show is at its core.
Extras include Ballyhoo-produced profiles of The Crawling Hand director Herbert L. Strock and I Accuse My Parents director Sam Newfield. Both are quite informative about the filmmakers and their careers in the rough-and-tumble world outside the Hollywood studio system. The Newfield documentary, Man of Poverty Row: The Films of Sam Newfield, is the better of the two despite featuring the same cadre of film historians. The director’s films featured more heavily on MST3K than Strock, so the discussion of his work feels more germane to the show overall. Mystery Science Theater Hour wraps for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and I Accuse My Parents are also included.
But the real marquee bonus feature is innocuously advertised on the box as “New Episode Intros by Series Creator Joel Hodgson.” In reality, they are fun reminiscences of making Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Eegah and I Accuse My Parents. In all three, he admits that the team had no idea these particular episodes would make the impression with fans that they ultimately made, but he was thrilled by the serendipity involved. In the case of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, he recalls feeling like the team was definitely firing on all cylinders and the reason why they were obsessed with Swayze at the time. In the Eegah intro, he mentions his fondness for the way catchphrases appear out of the movies themselves, like the life “Watch out for snakes!” took on; leading him to name last summer’s MST3K live tour the “Watch Out For Snakes!” Tour.
If anything is missing from the set, it’s definitely the Comedy Central era making-of documentary This Is MST3K. Shot during the writing and production of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, it feels like a natural inclusion in the episode’s bonus features. But perhaps licensing issues with Comedy Central and its parent company prevented the Penn Jillete-hosted special from appearing on the disc. Deleted footage shot by the MST3K staff has appeared on previous releases and the special can be found elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection is a worthy addition to any MSTies library — doubly so if you missed the DVD singles the first time around. The three classic episodes and Hodgson’s intros make it worth the price alone, but the added episodes, the short compilation and the director profiles just sweeten the deal. For someone coming the series for the first time, this might be the best place to start as it presents some of the best episodes the series ever produced.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Singles Collection is available now.